Familiar foes meet in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs as Central Division rivals Nashville and Detroit face off in a match up of the 4 and 5 seeds. Nashville occupies the 4 seed as they finished ahead of the Red Wings for the first time in the history of the franchise.
The regular season series saw the teams finish with a 3-3 record, indicative of how evenly matched the two teams were.
Two evenly matched teams set to do battle.
How will it play out?
To get an idea of the answer to that question, let's break down the components of the two teams.
Pekka Rinne was the workhorse in net for the Predators, and he led the NHL in wins with 43. Rinne had a 2.39 GAA and a .923 save %. The Red Wings will have Jimmy Howard in net, and he finished the year with 35 wins and a 2.13 GAA and a .920 save %.
Pretty evenly matched, eh?
Rinne faced 2,153 shots during the regular season, while Howard faced substantially less rubber, seeing 1,496 shots. That difference would be notable if the two netminders had played the same number of games, but Howard was limited due to injuries and played in 57 games to 73 for Rinne. On a per game basis, Rinne faced an average of 29.5 shots per game, while Howard faced 26.5, a negligible difference.
Rinne is athletic and uses his athletic ability to snuff out scoring chances. Howard plays much the same way. Both goalies are positionally sound players, but Rinne's athleticism gives him the ability to cover a lot of territory and recover quickly on rebound chances.
The compete level for both goalies is without question. The real question both goalies face is can they elevate their game in this series? Rinne has had more work throughout the season, and one wonders if that workload will affect his stamina. Howard has battled injuries, most recently a wonky groin. Will this affect him in this series is a question that Detroit fans are asking.
Two evenly matched goalies that carry their team. Because of his athletic ability and health, I lean toward Rinne.
The Wings bring a cast of wily and talented veterans to this match up. Henrik Zetterberg led the Wings with 69 points, closely followed by Pavel Datsyuk with 67 points and Valyteri Filppula with 66. The Wings augment that potent line with Johan Franzen (56 points); Jiri Hudler (50 points); and Todd Bertuzzi (38 points). Danny Cleary and Darren Helm, both nicked up with injuries, are dangerous and solid contributors. The Wings have gotten good contributions as well from Justin Abdelkader, Cory Emmerton, and newcomer Gustav Nyquist.
The Predators have been led by Marty Erat with 58 points; David Legwand with 53 points; and Mike Fisher with 51 points. This season, the Predators have enjoyed balanced scoring throughout the line up, with Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist with 43 points; Craig Smith with 36 points; Colin Wilson with 35 points; and Jordin Tootoo with 30 points. Significant scoring contributions have come from Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, and trade deadline acquisition Andrei Kostitsyn.
Oh yeah, there is that Radulov guy.
The Predators have the services of one of the most dynamic players in the playoffs in Radulov, and in his one game against the Wings, he has shown that he can command the attention of the opponents best defensive players and can contribute offensively in a dramatic way.
Radulov is the wild card in this series, and if he produces like he is capable, then the Wings are going to have difficulty in this series. I think he will rise to the occasion on the big stage. This is why he came back to the Predators and the NHL. This is his stage.
There is no doubt the Wings possess players up front that can be dangerous and are experienced in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. The Predators have to respect the ability of the Wings up front, and containing them will be critical for playoff success.
For the Predators, they must continue to get the balanced scoring that they have enjoyed throughout the season. It is critical that all lines contribute, and no line is going to be able to take a shift off. In this series, the Predators third line could be a difference maker. The line of Nick Spaling, Gabriel Bourque, and Patric Hornqvist have the potential to do some damage to the Wings. This line in particular has to be productive.
The Predators also have a size differential that is in their favor. In a long series, this can swing games to the Predators if they can use their size to wear down the Wings.
The Wings are certainly talented and experienced, and they are dangerous up front. The Predators have better depth and more balanced scoring.
For the Predators, the defense starts with Norris trophy candidates Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They will consistently be matched up against the Wings top forwards, and they are going to have to keep Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Filppula in check for the Predators to have success. Hal Gill provides experience, solid play, and an incredible shot blocking ability. Roman Josi has emerged as a calm, puck moving defenseman that is rarely out of position and possesses a surprisingly good shot. Kevin Klein and Francis Bouillon are solid third pairing.
The Wings defense is built around Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall, both excellent blueliners that bring a wealth of experience and talent to the back end for the Wings. Lidstrom is a veteran that has seen it all in the playoffs and his play steadies the Wings on the blue line. Kronwall is an immensely talented defender that is capable of delivering the the big hit that can swing momentum and slow down play through the neutral zone.
Ian White and Brad Stuart are sound, but once you get past the top four, the Wings rear guard are average if unspectacular. Trade deadline acquisition Kyle Quincey has been a healthy scratch for much of his tenure. Jakub Kindl, Cory Emmerton, and Jonathan Ericsson are serviceable but not outstanding.
It is imperative that the Predators exploit the third defensive pairing of the Wings, and that they wear down the top four defensemen. If the can do this, they can exploit the Wings blue line.By the same token, the Wings will attempt to do the same thing to the Predators. The team that wins this battle will have a decided edge in the series.
The Predators Barry Trotz will match wits with Mike Babcock, and this is a contest between two of the best coaches in the NHL.Both coaches are experienced in the playoffs, and both coaches will get the best out of their players.
For Trotz, part of his task will be managing the expectations of the players. The Predators have been picked by some pundits to win the Cup, and those are lofty expectations, especially for this young team. Trotz will have to keep the youngsters on this team focused, and he will have to guide them through the inevitable rough patches that occur in a playoff series. Managing expectations and adversity will be critical.
Babcock, like many of his players, is a veteran of the playoff wars. There are very few things that he hasn't seen, and I expect Babcock to be at his best and get the best from his players. His steady, veteran leadership is a plus for the Wings.
Nashville finished the regular season with the number one power play in the NHL, with a 21.6% success rate. Detroit's PK came in at 81.8%. Conversely, the Predators PK was successful 83.6% of the time, while the Wings PP connected at a 16.1%. Staying out of the box is going to be critical for the Predators, because the Wings can be deadly on the power play, and exhausting the forwards and defense in killing penalties is not a formula for success for the Predators. The Predators will benefit from drawing penalties from the Wings if they can continue to be effective on the power play.
Home ice advantage will be huge for the Predators. The Bridgestone Arena can be an intimidating place for any opponent to come into, even more so in the playoffs when the Nashville fans are in full playoff mode. Look for the home ice advantage to be a factor in this series.
There is no doubt that the series between these two teams is going to be hard fought and each contest will be tight. The Predators know they can win a playoff series- that monkey came off their back last season- and they know they can beat the Red Wings in a playoff series.
It comes down to poise and execution.
The team that plays with poise and plays their game and their system like they are capable will capture this series.
The Predators have the talent advantage.
I think they will execute and capture this series.
MY PREDICTION: PREDATORS IN 5